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Are we poised for a “boom-boom” in 2016?

I’m not talking double-guns here, but whether or not we can anticipate another quail-per-acre this year or even more than that.  Let’s count our good fortune thus far.
  1. Winter weather was kind, and on the heels of our best production in the past 10 years (perhaps much longer).  Accordingly, we entered the breeding season with just under a bird/acre according to our March helicopter counts—easily the best breeding capital we’ve seen since the Ranch was created (2007). 
  2. El Nino has brought good tidings—as of 28 June we’re sitting at 13.91   inches of rainfall YTD.  While areas a bit further east and south may boast almost twice that, we’re content.  Nesting cover and screening cover look incredible for the second year in a row.  Nesting activity commenced several weeks ahead of schedule.  May and June were both relatively cool; we have yet to record a high temperature of 100 degrees.
  3. Our call counts are about 50% greater than our previous high years (2010 and 2015), and calls per rooster are 35% above our “10 calls per rooster” statistic we typically observe.  Exactly what this trend means I’m not certain, but the increase is marked.
  4. At this point (June 28), our nest initiation rate and nest success rate seem to be down some from last year (see Table 1). It appears that fewer bobwhites have initiated a nest this year relative to the same date in 2015. Nest success also seems to be lower, but sample sizes of nest fates are currently low for both bobwhite (n = 16) and scaled quail (n = 8).  Interestingly, success rates of our “dummy” (i.e., simulated) quail nests at 28-days was a meager 30%, which seems incredibly low (typically we see 60% dummy nest survival) given cover conditions. Is the lower nest initiation rate real, or are we underestimating it if we don’t locate nests “quickly?”  If it is real, is it an indication of “density-dependent” nesting, i.e., higher quail density results in lower nest initiation rate?  
  5. Is the lower productivity a function of age of the hens?  A greater percentage of hens last year were adults.  A study on the Aiken Ranch (10 miles south of RPQRR) in 2004-5 found that adult hens were more prolific relative to nesting, and “second-nesting” (i.e., double-broods).
  6. Our buffer prey species (e.g., rodents and rabbits) appear to be thriving, as they were last year.   But has such a boon in prey numbers resulted in greater predator abundance? Photo-trapping to estimate such concluded last week; I’ll report those results next month.. 
  7. We’re beginning to observe a few “megabroods” (coveys of 25+ birds) over the past two weeks, but not on par with what we saw last summer.   Hopefully this will change during July, and we’ll find more hens “double-clutching.”  As I made my “ranch round” this past Monday night, I flushed a smooth dozen broods.  Most were 4 to 6 weeks old.
  8. We don’t have the continuous broomweed canopy we had last year, but we have a decent stand, and it’s complemented by other herbaceous cover that is luxuriant.  Sunflowers and marestail (i.e., horseweed) are especially abundant on our burned areas.
  9. Chick survival, which is a tough metric to measure, seems (anecdotally) on par with last year (at this point).
  10. So, the “quail equation” is unfolding before our eyes.  I sprayed mesquites on Tuesday on my ATV in the Babe CRP and it was “alive” with quail.  July should add clarity to the prospects of a boom-boom.  But I‘ve seen enough for my trigger finger to begin getting the itch.  Stay tuned.
Table 1.  Nesting activity of bobwhite and scaled quail at RPQRR, 2015 vs. 2016 year-to-date.
 
Bobwhites 26 June 2015 26 June 2016
Radio-marked hens alive May 1 41 71
Total nests found 31 25
Second nest attempts 4 2
Nests per hen 0.76 0.35
Nest success 77% 60%










 
Scaled quail 26 June 2015 26 June 2016
Radio-marked hens alive May 1 25 22
Total  nests 10 10
Second nest attempts 1 0
Nests per hen 0.4 0.45
Nest success 90% 63%










 
Song of the Month

Boom, boom, boom, boom by John Lee Hooker (from the movie “The Blues Brothers”.
 
RPQRR’s Wish List – Can you help?

Our support for quail research comes almost exclusively from private donors.  Perhaps you would like to help us help quail.  We have need for various pieces of equipment.  If you would like to donate, RPQRR is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation, so your donations (cash or in-kind) are tax deductible.  Here’s our current list of needs:
 
Item Need
¾ ton pickup truck Pulling trailers, carrying pumper unit for prescribed burns
100-hp tractor Food plot preparation, shredding
15’ batwing shredder Shredding
Grain cart Bulk purchase/storage of milo
Sea container Storage of equipment
 
The Life of a Nesting Bobwhite, Part 2 by Brad Kubecka, Graduate Research Assistant

In last month’s issue of e-Quail, I detailed the process in which bobwhites pair, copulate, and begin nesting. And now… the rest of the story.

Once a hen has built her nest and copulation has occurred, she begins laying eggs. Sperm is held in special glands until ovulation occurs when it is released into the infundibulum (i.e., upper-most part of the oviduct) where fertilization takes place. The whitish spot you see in egg yolks represents the germinal disc where the sperm meets the ovum (i.e., yolk). As if being put on by layers, the albumen and chalaza (i.e., egg white material) is added in the magnum of the oviduct after fertilization. The egg continues down the oviduct through the isthmus and uterus where the shell membrane and shell are added, respectively. The egg then goes into the cloaca and is ready to be laid. When the egg is laid, the temperature of the egg is similar to that of the hen (108° F). As the egg cools, the inner shell membrane contracts and forms the air cell which serves an important purpose during hatching. The older the egg, the larger the air cell will be due to varying gas exchanges. Each egg takes about a day to a day and a half to produce and lay. Thus a clutch of 15 eggs can take up to 20 days to lay.

Often during the laying process the hen will not stay at the nest but will be out-and-about feeding to meet the energy and protein requirements for egg production. Optimal egg production occurs at crude protein levels of 23%, 2.1% calcium, and 1% phosphorus (Nestler et al. 1944). As such, the hen’s diet is comprised mainly of highly nutritious arthropods, legumes, and plant matter (Wood et al. 1986).

Incubation does not start until all eggs are laid. Thus, all eggs will hatch at the same time—a phenomenon known as synchronous hatching. According to RPQRR nesting data (n = 228 nests), cocks will incubate about 8.3% of the time while the hen re-nests. Other research suggests much higher male incubation rates (about 25%). Incubation lasts about 23 days in which the tending parent will stay on the nest nearly all day, leaving only in the morning or evening to feed and briefly return. When days are cool, the tending parent may leave the nest during the middle of the day to go feed. During the hotter part of the summer (i.e., mid-July), it is unlikely that an incubating quail will be off-nest in the heat-of-the-day. If eggs get too hot, embryo development ceases.

While nesting, the tending parent may give auditory calls that help in prenatal development of the chick’s sensory system (Lickliter and Virkar 1989, Lickliter and Stoumbos 1991). It has been suggested that this communication increases the responsiveness of newly-hatched chicks to various calls of the tending parent, and thus predator avoidance. Pen-reared birds typically lack this responsiveness.

If a predator approaches the nest during incubation, the tending parent will not give away the location of the nest by flushing, but rather hold very tight, not flushing unless the predator nearly touches it. As a result, sometimes the hen is killed on the nest. Nest success at RPQRR from 2009–present (61%) seems to be consistently higher than the national average of 28% (Rollins and Caroll 2001). It has been suggested that only 1 out of every 20 eggs laid will result in a bird that will nest the following year. This instills a true appreciation in the naturalist of the value of adequate nesting cover for concealment.

After 43 days of being in virtually the same location (laying + incubation), eluding raccoons, skunks, and other “mesocarnivores”, the chicks are positioned in the egg with their head at the large end of the egg close to the air cell. Hatching begins by chicks puncturing the air cell and breathing on their own. Next, the chicks begin to “pip.” Pipping is when the chicks use a protrusion on the tip of their beak known as the “egg tooth” to scratch away at the egg shell, forming a small hole. After pipping, they will rest for about 4 to 8 hours before continuing the hatch cut. When the egg is scored completely around, the chick will give a push and emerge from the egg­– exhausted. The chicks will stay at the nest for about 1 day before leaving while the parent protects them under his/her wings.

When brooding in the Rolling Plains of Texas, the tending parent typically seeks out shadier microhabitats (e.g., under hackberry, mesquite, or sunflower stand) to help keep the chicks cool. During this time, chicks are foraging on high protein diets of arthropods, greens, and seeds to acquire the essential amino acids for feather production and growth. Optimal protein at this age is around 28% (Nestler 1949).

Though fairly well developed after hatching, a chick’s ability to regulate their body temperature is poor. DeMaso et al. (1997) estimated chick survival at 39 days to be only 37%. Barring the risk of predation, survival would still be low due to the inherent vulnerability of chicks to the elements. If approached by a predator while brooding, the brooding parent may react a few ways. The brooder may hold very tight and hope the predator passes, try to lure the predator away by causing a distraction, or even try attacking the predator if it be a smaller threat.

Multiple social interactions may occur during brooding as well. These different scenarios when parents “swap young” or “gang-up” are called brood amalgamations (See June 2015 Newsletter for more information). Brood amalgamations help enhance a hen’s ability to re-nest instead of brooding.

Please contact me at bradley.kubecka@students.tamuk.edu with any additional questions or concerns. Literature referenced herein provided upon request.
 
Scaled Quail Restoration to Historic Ranges in the Rolling Plains: Project Update by Becky Ruzicka, Ph.D. candidate

nestDuring the month of June, nesting activity in our translocated Scaled (Blue) Quail in Knox County increased dramatically. Seventy percent of our hens thus far have initiated a nest, several are on their second nest and 30% of the hens are currently brooding. A rough calculation of a nest hatch rate at this point about is about 40%. For the most part our depredations have been impossible to attribute to a specific nest predator (i.e., the eggs are just gone), with the exception of one nest that was depredated by feral hogs. I’m attributing it to feral hogs because of the large amount of fresh hog sign in the area including tracks up to within inches from the nest bowl.

One of the most interesting aspects thus far that I have learned is how scaled quail select for woody cover when choosing a nest site. A typical nest that we have documented is in some species of grass (not necessarily bunchgrass, although some are) associated with woody cover. In most cases the nests have woody cover directly over them. The most common species is juniper (but that’s also probably what is most available). Other species includes catclaw, mesquite, ephedra, and tasajillo. Prickly pear has also been used.

muleThe uptick in nesting activity seemed to have brought on a decrease in survival. I will be interested in what we are able to learn from a formal analysis on survival over time. Currently though, we still have about 75% of the 112 birds released alive and “on air.”  Luckily for us, dispersal has slowed down with the increase in nesting activity, but in that short time the birds spread from their two release points across an area of roughly 30,000 acres.  That’s quite a trek for a little quail! Many thanks to the Cross Timbers Quail Coalition for their generous donation of a second Kawasaki Mule for this project. Without that second Mule we would never be able to keep up with these birds as well as we have in this land of rock, juniper, and few roads!
 
Call counts – real time update

  CalCount
 
A new subspecies of bobwhite???

 
Dear Dr. DR:
 
The past 25 minutes on my front porch have provided me with the most active period of “calling” males (bobwhites) that I can recall in my 28 years on this location. There seems to be no gentlemanly agreement among these exceedingly amorous suitors—the usual Cocktail Circuit courtesy of not “butting in” or “talking over” one another seems to have fallen aside.  The listener/observer can’t completely absorb one plaintive “bob-white” before a more raucous “Jim Bob WHITE” steps on his rival’s fading notes.  I submit to you chaps of the “scientific community” that a new classification /taxonomy of these creatures be examined in detail. Purely as a layman observer, let me submit a new name for this group—perhaps they should rightfully be classified as “Colinus  VIAGRAus.”  Just the observations of a student of the Bird, nothing more, nor less.—PM (Received on June 9; the latin name of the bobwhite is Colinus virginianus.)
 
Camera-trapping

Steve Romo’s major project for this summer is our semi-annual photo-trapping effort to assess predator trends.  One of Steve’s cameras recently caught a “first” for us here at RPQRR—a black cat.  Unusual for us because of the abundance of coyotes that we have, and coyotes typically keep the area “clean” of feral cats.  I’ll wager this one won’t last long.  But I offer the picture to you in honor of the 4th of July holiday . . . I used to spend my whole paycheck from working Saturdays at the salebarn in Hollis, OK (typically about $8) on Black Cat firecrackers.

Camtrap
 
Mark your calendar

19 July – Eyeworm dissection day (join us as we dissect several hundred quail for the presence of eyeworms; no experience necessary)

3-4 Aug - “Bug Days” at RPQRR; no experience necessary)

30 Sept - 9th annual field day, RPQRR.
 
Intern diaries

internsHere at RPQRR, we use inquisitive young professionals to help “put the legs” under our various research activities.  Carolin Tappe came to us from Germany, via a BS degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over my career I’ve found that a “good German work ethic” is just hard to beat, and Carolin surely exemplified such.  I enjoyed her willingness to “try Texas”, including shooting pistols, enduring my Okie ebonics, and eating rattlesnake.  On her last morning (she was due to depart about 8:30) she left the HQ about 5:45 to spend her last morning at RPQRR perched atop “Mammary Mountain” (one of our landmarks here) to dissect her last sunrise here.--DR 
 
A thousand thanks and goodbye to the team of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in West Texas!
 
If you had asked me four months ago what I could tell you about quail, I probably would have remained silent, as I did not know much about quail behavior or ecology, not even its actual size. But there is a unique place in West Texas, the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch that certainly remedies any knowledge gap and lack of experience when it comes to quail! The “Research Ranch” encompasses nearly 5,000 acres of prime landscape that offers just about anything Scaled and Bobwhite quail want and need.
 
This little bit of quail heaven surely cannot exist without the tireless effort, dedication, and expertise of the quail research team I had the fortune to join, and learn from, over the past months. To tell you about every experience that helped me grow, not only on a professional but also on a personal level, would surely be impossible and easily overwhelm the reader. There are some essential tasks though that shaped my everyday life as a technician among my research fellows at the ranch.
 
In March 2016 we kicked off the spring trapping season and about 4,000 quail (including recaptures) made their contribution to our long-term research data set. The capture, handling, and release of these birds were all new to me, but thanks to the amount of quail we caught, as well as the patience and teaching skills of my co-workers Michael Dake, Alison Bleich, and Adrian Cain, I quickly picked up the know-how of quail capture. The most challenging task was to provide quail with radio collars. Although I have had previous experience with radio-collaring large and small mammals, putting tiny VHF radio transmitters on birds was a totally different ballgame. It took a nifty trick shown to me by Alison to tackle the difficulty of moving and tying the knot and assuring a proper fit of the collars.
 
I still remember the first quail I collared. It was a female Blue that had been missing due to a failed transmitter since November 2015. My favorite bycatch during trapping season was a roadrunner. I had never seen roadrunners before, and apparently they are much easier to catch and handle than the coyote tries to make us believe in the popular cartoon show of the Looney Tunes.
 
After completing one month of quail trapping we had about 150 individuals on air that needed to be monitored for survival and nesting activity. Once a bird died, we received a mortality signal by its collar if the transmitter set motionless for about 12 hours. Then it was time for us to head out into the field, apply our CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) skills and determine the cause of its death. Although we were not equipped with high tech gear a la Hollywood to find out what led to a quail’s demise, in many cases we were able to find decisive evidence that helped us to identify the perpetrator. For instance, neatly clipped off wings and pulled feathers indicate a raptor kill. 
 
A critical factor in successfully determining the mortality cause is time. The more time passes until we reach a kill site, the harder it is to tell the fate of the quail. Problems arise when other animals kept moving the collars, preventing them from sending a mortality signal. In such cases we were unable to recover the remains of the quail and collar early enough to establish the cause of death. Another challenge we faced were packrats that carried the collars away from the kill sites and deep underground, leaving us sweating and covered with prickly pear in the attempt to retrieve them. At this point I want to thank graduate student Brad Kubecka for giving me a hand and joining me in the difficult quest of lost radio collars, as I dedicated my last days at the RPQRR almost entirely to their retrieval.
 
The brighter side of monitoring quail using radio telemetry surely is associated with observing their nesting activity. I still remember the excitement I felt when I found my very first nest. It belonged to an adult female Blue that was originally caught and radio-collared in the Oscar pasture in February, 2015. Her nest was located under some yucca in the East Tex pasture within which I found 12 eggs. About 10 days after I had discovered her nest, all of the eggs hatched during Mother’s Day weekend! Although all credit belongs to momma quail, I did feel somewhat like a proud mom myself and took the liberty of celebrating Mother’s Day enjoying a big, tasty lunch with Dr. Rollins, where I even received a rose from the restaurant’s owner!
 
Not all nesting attempts I witnessed had a happy ending. Some nests got depredated, others abandoned. One female Bobwhite quail I had monitored in the Doc pasture must have stayed-put in presence of a predator until the very end to not reveal the location of her nest. She was protecting 17 eggs, all of which got depredated. Only remaining feathers covering her nest and surrounding area spoke of her bravery. Nest-searching using radiotelemetry can be quite challenging considering the topographical features of the ranch and the amount of quail we monitor. Special thanks go to Michael Dake who offered his support and advice and helped me improve my daily monitoring efforts of nesting quail.
 
Coming from Germany, a country that is only half the size of Texas, where gun ownership is as foreign as rattlesnake on the dinner menu, I think I have come far since Dr. Dale Rollins gave me the opportunity to work at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch and encouraged my exposure to everything Texan culture and the ranch has to offer. Every single activity, from quail trapping and monitoring, applying prescribed burns to manage the land, surveying wildlife from a helicopter, operating a tractor and other machinery, to educating the public about quail management and conservation, made my time here a one of a kind experience which will resonate with me and shape my work with wildlife in the future.
 
I am incredibly grateful for what I have learned over the past months and the people I had the pleasure to work with. Special thanks go to Dr. Rollins, who gave me the opportunity to join his team, who taught me which end of the gun to point at the target, and who always had a joke or anecdote handy that I had trouble understanding due to my lack of Texan vocabulary.  Lloyd LaCoste, who taught me practically everything there is to the ranch—I think he is one of the most dedicated and hard-working people at the ranch. If you look for him, your luck to find him is probably greatest out on the pastures, no matter what time of the day or week, even on weekends!!!  Thanks also to Becky Ruzicka and Drew White, who let me be part of the Blue quail translocation study. I had a great time at the beautiful Berryman ranch surveying quail and enjoying tasty tailgate dinners under the stars after our long work days.  Brad Kubecka, who taught me lots about the plants at the research ranch and who helped me with recovering lost radio collars. He surely did most of the hard work when we had to tackle big prickly pear patches and deep packrat holes. Michael Dake, who helped me with about everything at the research ranch. You probably cannot find a more supportive and patient teacher! Alison Bleich and Adrian Cain, who taught me just about anything there is to know about quail capture and quail handling. I probably couldn’t have had a better trapping team on my side, because these ladies have caught and handled thousands of quail at the research ranch!  Bradley Lawrence, who introduced me to the Texas Horned Lizard study by the Dallas Zoo and showed me how the lizards are tagged, measured, and weighed.  Our summer interns Anne Provost, Alexandra Bouchard, Stoney Newberry, and Steven Romo, who took over a huge work load once they arrived at the ranch. I absolutely loved their excitement and eagerness to learn about everything the ranch has to offer. It was a very rewarding experience to meet and work with them during my last days at the ranch.
 
A thousand thanks go out to the interns for baking me a big, tasty German chocolate cake as my going away present! This was incredibly touching and allowed me to leave the research ranch with a full belly and a big smile!!!
 

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By the numbers

33 - that’s the number of bobwhites I observed flushing from the Babe CRP on Tuesday at RPQRR; it’s my biggest megabrood of the year.

From our Facebook page

See Steve Romo’s post of June 22 for a “near R-rated” scene of two blue quail nearly caught “in the act.”  There’s just no privacy anymore, eh?

Word of the month

dolorous; adj., “causing, marked by, or expressing misery or grief.”  I like it when our interns are “bonded” enough with their respective radio-marked quail that they become dolorous when they find a mortality.

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San Angelo, Texas 76906
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